Details: (c) Cynthia Voigt 1985; Pub Collins 2000; ISBN 0-00-710015-9
Verdict: The Runner is a beautifully poignant and emotionally solid portrait of Bullet.
Reasons for reading it: I adore Cynthia Voigt and The Runner reminded me why.
How it came into my hands: I went on a mad charity shop spree in Oxford, having been keeping myself out of second hand bookshops for several weeks while I was in the process of moving house. And the Mind shops on Jericho Street turned out to be particularly impressive for books!
Voigt is just amazing. She does characterization like almost no-one else I've ever read. Her language is just about the starkest it is possible for language to be, yet she manages to convey emotion with considerable intensity and the writing is beautiful as a whole, without leaning on any lyricism whatsoever and using a vocabulary entirely suitable for her young adult market.
The Runner is superlative even by Voigt's high standards. The insights into Bullet as a person and how it feels to be him are seriously impressive, though he's extremely unlike me or the sorts of characters I usually relate to, and not really even particularly likeable in some ways. As a YA novel, The Runner is sort of about Issues like racism and the Vietnam War, but it far transcends the sort of simplistic history lesson and moral message that summary might imply. It's really an exploration of what it means to go through life absolutely morally uncompromising and intellectually honest. Bullet's maturity in facing up to reality directly isolates him from his peers, and this is exacerbated by his lack of empathy; he's ahead of his years in some ways but not in all, and this is really beautifully portrayed.
As sort of incidental asides, there is some pretty impressive character background for Bullet's mother, who will become the grandmother who is a central figure in the Dicey stories which form the rest of the series, and Dicey's mother, Bullet's sister. Having read most of the other Dicey books, I was fascinated by these glimpses, but they come across really well as people and I am pretty sure they would work if one read The Runner as a stand-alone. The other characters, such as Bullet's almost-friend Patrice, and even incidental characters like his classmates and coach are also incredibly well drawn. They come across as believable, complex people even though Bullet's viewpoint is rather emotionally narrow and he has no sense that they matter at all.
I read the book knowing Bullet's fate, because it's referred to in the other books set a generation later, but I'm pretty certain that it's meant to be obvious even to a naive reader. Anyway, I became so emotionally engaged with the characters that I was shocked by the ending even though intellectually I was expecting it. Of course in some ways he's a symbol of the whole generation growing up in the 60s, but the story is so intensely personal and moving that it doesn't seem like recounting history at all.
I highly, highly recommend The Runner (and indeed anything by Voigt).